'Tis the Season for Universities to Be Reminded of Their Third Mission

22/12/2015 10:00 GMT | Updated 21/12/2016 10:12 GMT

It is the season of good will, as they say; a special time of year to show we care for those around us. This applies not just to family and friends, but also for those who are less fortunate or whose life we could make better.

For most universities and colleges, the season of good will lasts the entire year, every year - or at least, that is the idea. It is called the university's Third Mission: the self-imposed task to actively contribute positively to society.

This Third Mission can take many forms. It might include students and other members of the university community volunteering in less affluent parts of society, whether in local communities or developing countries. It can take the form of the institution adopting projects and causes, using its expertise and facilities to make a difference. It can be an academic version of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), like involvement in urban regeneration projects through branch campuses, or non-commercial research contributing to enhanced well-being. The list of examples is endless.

The reason universities do this is historical. In our society, the oldest universities emerged from the concept of monasteries. There are two type of monasteries: those that act as refuge from society for quiet contemplation and prayer, and those that seek to interact with society by using faith to support those who would benefit from assistance and compassion.

Academically, the first type of institutions evolved into ivory towers, pursuing knowledge for knowledge's sake. Though I suspect some of my academic colleagues still - secretly or openly - long for such institutions, they have become extremely rare if not extinct.

The more utilitarian role of universities in society has become dominant, and the Third Mission has become an integral part of the raison d'être of nearly all educational institutions. As over the last hundred or so years many colleges have received substantial state funding, the Third Mission has received an even stronger basis. When you receive funding from the public purse, society automatically becomes your dominant stakeholder.

The Third Mission, like all CSR, is not just about doing good: universities and colleges can receive clear benefits in return. As an example, I very much like the concept of weekend university, whereby facilities like sports grounds which are under-utilised can be used by young people from disadvantaged areas. Universities benefit from that because there is a lot of talent amongst these groups, yet they are often hesitant to consider a college education. Through the weekend university, they become more used to the idea that higher education is not as odd as it may seem.

For academic staff, being involved in Third Mission projects can come with valuable returns. For instance, by linking it to so-called Action (or Participating) Research, academic staff can be actively engaged as well as observing, analysing, and publishing results. This creates a win-win for all involved.

Students can contribute to the Third Mission through community work and volunteering activities, which can be incorporated into their experiential learning. It adds a practical dimension to their education, and they should be able (if properly supervised and after delivering proper reports) to claim points for their study.

In 1998, the UK government explicitly introduced an incentive for universities to count economic impact as its Third Mission, referencing examples such as the impact of spin-off companies and research applications. That is a very narrow interpretation of the Third Mission, but finding ways to measure it does make sense if it is to be accepted as a 'proper' part of the role of higher education. For instance, the various rankings and league tables tend to ignore it - probably not because it is considered irrelevant, but because it is not easy to quantify. As a result, most rankings are heavily biased towards the Second Mission (research), which is easiest to measure, and aspects of the First Mission (teaching and employability). As a result the Third Mission remains well overshadowed by the First and Second Mission.

This is the right time of the year to shift the limelight and celebrate the importance of the Third Mission in higher education. In future, we need to find ways to stimulate greater involvement in the Third Mission and make sure it really counts.

Professor Maurits van Rooijen is Rector and Chief Executive at London School of Business and Finance (LSBF)